Hi-Fi’s true high point was the 1970s

1979_Reference_Model105.2I have maybe reached the limits of what I can usefully say on the technicalities of hi-fi. Looking through various audio newsfeeds every day, including some ‘retro’ sites, it is clear that modern ‘high end’ hi-fi is increasingly coming to resemble that of the 1950s, or even earlier. Audio forums are dominated by such advanced topics as LP cleaning, turntable bearings, valve sockets and cotton-covered cables. There are endless ‘new’ turntables, valve amplifiers and horn speakers that all blur into one steaming pile of steampunk. It’s either that, or perpetual debate on how to convert one file format to another or which lossless codec sounds best(!). In other words, eight decades of audiophilia hasn’t settled anything, and just seems to be a load of pointless activity and argument for the sake of it. Nothing is ever allowed to be put to bed, and progress has stalled. Or maybe hi-fi has reached practical perfection and in order to maintain a sense of momentum there is nowhere left to go but backwards.

There are other hobbies with groups of enthusiasts who like to play about with vintage machinery, but in the case of hi-fi, the vintage stuff is now actually viewed as the cutting edge. Everything that has been developed in the last fifty-plus years is seen as a waste of time, money and effort, if not an actual crime.

I am increasingly coming to see hi-fi’s true high point as having been the 1970s. The technology wasn’t necessarily at its highest level, but belief in real progress and rationality was, and owning a hi-fi was still something quite special. The role of the audio system was at its most ‘pure’, and people were prepared to take up space in the living room with large speakers – the bigger the better. The gear could look fantastic. Your audio system and records said something about you, and it wasn’t “I like to listen for the differences between types of wire”.

As I recall, by the 1980s hi-fi had begun to lose that special combination of qualities that made it so seductive in the 70s. For most people it became just another cheaply-made device providing ‘entertainment’. Design in the 1980s could be awful too, and I don’t think there are many pieces of equipment from that time that are admired for their looks.

Looking at the physical form of my homebrew system, I can see how it could be converted into a rather refined and tasteful thing, ‘channeling’ the 1970s. It would have speakers that resemble KEF from the 70s – I have Ken Kessler’s ‘speaker porn’ book on KEF – or looking like Goodmans’ Dimension 8 or possibly the Cambridge R40/R50. A multi-channel amp and digital ‘core’ of some kind would be essential, and if I had to have visible boxes of electronics they would have the minimalism and restraint of Quad’s 306/34 – I have Kessler’s lavish book on Quad, too. And finally a means of controlling the system resembling Meridian’s Control 15, perhaps. And that would be it. I could happily live with it forever because I have reached the point where I know that you can’t get much better. Meridian have always known this too, and their speakers are the same but without the teak veneer. I am partial to a bit of teak veneer.

Arrays of modern glowing valves, giant horns, turntables with one foot thick platters? They have no class. They’re not tasteful. They’re not rational!

[I added a follow up here]

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High End Immunity

Hey, I just realised something: I think I am now completely immune to the hi-fi High End, and to ‘prestige branding’, whether it’s cables, amplifiers or turntables. I just saw an advertising sidebar on an audiophile blog, for a particular ‘cult’ brand of amplifier, and it occurred to me that it leaves me utterly cold. If you handed me such a ‘high end’ piece of kit, there wouldn’t secretly be a part of me thinking “I tell everyone that hi-fi is about basic design not exotic hardware, but deep down I’ll bet this impressive beast coupled to some fine passive speakers will conjure up some real magic”. In fact it’s worse than that: knowing very little about the company beyond a few snippets on the web that I think I once read, I view this brand as nothing more than hobbyist-level fantasies that have somehow found their way out of a garage. I simply have no ‘faith’. I view the amplification problem as fairly mundane, so any amplifier that comes along that is much bigger, heavier and more expensive than it needs to be has the opposite effect on me than was intended: I can’t help but think that it’s probably a bit rubbish.

If you gave me some £10,000 cables I would not feel one iota of curiosity or expectation on how they were going to sound because I would know that they were going to sound exactly the same as all other cables. For me to think anything else would be to deny everything I think I know about how electronics works, and to cast doubt on real engineers’ abilities to do what they claim to do – how could I drive a car or fly on a plane again? For me to believe that those cables were going to add magic to the sound, I would have to believe that cable ‘designers’ are in receipt of secret knowledge that has never, ever, been published, nor taught publicly. Where did they gain this special knowledge? By Occam’s Razor, I have to conclude that, basically, while their delusions may be sincere, they are making it all up.

Which is not to say I can’t admire some nice design. My Quad 306 power amplifier is a thing of beauty. Form follows function, and it only cost £170.

‘dynamic contrast’

Just went away for a couple of days, and the house we were renting had a typical flat-screen LCD TV. For a while I found it difficult to watch, and then I realised that it still had the default menu setting of ‘dynamic contrast’. I believe that this ‘feature’ is included to increase the perceived dynamic range of a TV, and it allows the manufacturer to quote a really impressive figure like 15000:1, when in fact the brightness ratio between the screen’s deepest black and whitest white is only 100 or some such. By dimming the backlight in response to the ratio of dark to light in the scene, the greyness of the black is disguised. The upshot is that the screen looks bright and vivid on many scenes (when the bright parts mask the greyness of the blacks), but in dimly-lit scenes where the grey blacks would be obvious, the picture dims down even more, with a time constant of some fraction of a second. It’s horrible! It has nothing to do with revealing more information, and everything to do with trying to make an average piece of hardware look slightly better cosmetically. Once I had disabled this in the TV’s menu settings, it was an amazing relief, and the non-black blacks really weren’t a problem.

Effectively this is a variety of dynamic range manipulation, and it is analogous to dynamic range compression or manipulation in audio. A ‘spongy’ system, constantly shifting, is fatiguing for the ears and brain even if it is not noticed consciously. If it can be turned off, the relief is palpable. Dynamic range compression can be an intentional recording effect, a necessary evil such as in vinyl mastering, or a by-product of hardware limitations such as the ‘turbo lag’ of bass reflex, power compression, passive crossover non-linearities and so on. You may not realise it is there until it is turned off.

Kraftwerk: Pop Art

kraftwerk

Kraftwerk: Pop Art on BBC4 told us about the band’s rise from hippie origins to their current god-like status, with talking heads aplenty describing how their music had influenced disco, techno, hip hop etc. etc. Paul Morley (yes, him again, but that’s not a bad thing) said that the Beatles were a cultural full stop, while Kraftwerk influenced pretty much everything that came after them. At times, the eulogising was near hysterical, and for a couple of moments during the programme I half-wondered if I was being taken in by a spoof documentary. The programme was only about the band’s work, and fastidiously avoided any temptation to delve into their personalities or private lives.

My own personal opinion of Kraftwerk is that I love the sounds, and some of the tunes, but I have always winced at the singing…

The Sound of Song: Mix it up and start again

mix it up

Part 2 of this series took us up to where the sonic possibilities of tape manipulation had been explored with The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s.

Part 3 started with praise for the 1970s hi fi sound (it had such warmth that it was hard to imagine that it could ever be bettered) and moved onto synthesisers: Rick Wakeman and the Minimoog, Kraftwerk, and then neatly segued into the popularity of Kraftwerk’s music with disco-goers; disco gave birth to sampling and the extended re-mix (so DJs could go for a toilet break, apparently). Alongside this, recording left the studio: multitrack cassette allowed people to create demos at home. We were then into digital recording with a re-creation of Cher’s 1998 ‘autotune song’ Believe, and the backlash against studio trickery in the form of Nirvana’s In Utero. And finally a man creating a song on his phone while still in bed.

Inevitably presenter Neil Brand cast doubt on digital recording and said that some people (i.e. the ones with souls) think that, for the first time in its history, the recording industry took a retrograde step when it introduced CD. CD was never introduced for better sound quality, said one famous producer, but merely convenience. Another said that CD “sounds like s**t”. The opposing view was put by… no one. The programme concluded with the vinyl sales explosion, and an affirmation that the power of the three minute song is so great that pop has a bright future.

As I discussed a while ago it is clear that, among the cognoscenti, the vinyl vs. digital debate is over, with vinyl the winner. Digital audio is tolerated as a convenient medium for the earbud masses and a useful tool in the studio, but no one expects a digital recording played on a real hi-fi system to sound like anything but “s**t”.

Korg Nutube

Nutube

Not something I expected to see in the 21st century! A miniaturised valve that looks a bit like an integrated circuit.

…operates as a complete triode tube, generating the same rich harmonics that are distinctive of conventional vacuum tubes

…less than 2% of power required by conventional vacuum tubes and making it easy to power the unit on batteries

In the field of lighting, governments are banning glass bulbs and hot filaments for energy efficiency reasons, while the audio world is going in the opposite direction.

[I first saw this product mentioned on enjoythemusic via Ultimist]